Mapping the Menace: A Quantitave Content Analysis on Enemy Image Construction in the American Action Thriller

This Working Paper critically investigates the presence of enemy images in the American action thriller genre. First, a theoretical framework is assembled by combining insights from conflict studies, genre theory and critical discourse analysis. Through a quantitative content analysis of 180 films in a 36 years period (1981-2016), an explorative mapping is given of dominant enemy identities, themes and generic conventions. Results show a large diversity in villain characters, largely defined by their ethnic ‘otherness’. These identities are discursively tied to notions of the self and the ‘other’, often interacting with what is at different time periods perceived to be credible threats to the USA or the Western international community. At the same time many White American authority figures also appear as villains, signifying a rich potential for social criticism and counterhegemonic strategies. However, such critical reflections are generally not accomplished since the generic conventions of these films largely affirm hegemonic discourses on enemyhood and conflict. The comparison between hero and villain characters also reveals that heroes are strikingly similar to villains in actions, motivations and means. Despite such resemblances, these actions are framed differently as to understand the violent measures of the heroes as sanctioned, and those of the villains as unacceptable.

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